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Baptism for the Dead

“As for that,” said Waldershare, “sensible men are all of the same religion.” “And pray, what is that?” inquired the prince, “Sensible men never tell. “

Benjamin Disraeli, Endymion

The Mormons are back in the news again. While their most prominent spokesman is demonstrating theological wisdom, the folks in Salt Lake City have reached yet another agreement with holocaust survivors who are concerned about the involuntary heavenly placement by Mormons of dead non-Mormons. This dispute is, by now, more than 15 years old.

In 1994 we learned that the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, known as the Mormon Church, was engaging in something called “baptism for the dead”. During that ceremony, living people stand in as proxies for decedents to offer them a chance, but not an obligation, to become Mormons post mortem, as it were. Apparently, once in heaven (assuming the decedent got that far) the decedent can look over the digs in which the Mormons live and compare it, for example, with where the Baptists (if that was the decedent’s religion at death) are hanging out, and decide whether to exercise the option and join the Mormons or to stay with the Baptists.

In 1994 it was learned that Adolph Hitler had been posthumously baptized by the Mormons together with 380,000 of his holocaust victims. Among them were Anne Frank, David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel and Sigmund Freud. (It is unlikely that many of the 380,000 would have opted to move into the Mormon section of heaven once they saw Hitler there.) When news of those baptisms became public, the Jewish community was incensed. Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center said “these people were born Jews, they lived as Jews and many of them died because they were Jews. They would not have chosen to be baptized Mormons in life, and there is no reason they would want to be baptized by proxy in death.” In 1995, Mormons and the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors based in New York, arrived at an agreement whereby the Mormons agreed to unbaptize those it had involuntarily baptized and agreed to quit conducting “vicarious baptisms.”

Although the 1995 accords were thought to have put an end to the practice of post-mortem baptism, they did not. In 2003 it was disclosed that the Mormons had continued the process of “vicarious baptism.” Todd Christofferson, a Mormon involved in the 1995 negotiations explained that: “We never had in mind that we would on a continual basis, go in and ferret out the Jewish names. That would represent an intolerable burden.” (One can only assume that the need to increase the celestial Mormon population is so great that it requires mass proxy baptisms that does not permit individual scrutiny of the name of people affected by the process.) Thanks to the advancement in computer technology and perhaps the assistance of the Lord, the burden has been lifted. On September 1, 2010 it was again announced by the Mormons and the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors that a new computer system and policy changes should bring to an end the involuntary baptism of non-Mormons. It can only be hoped that this is more successful than the efforts begun 15 years ago.

Now that this has been resolved we can examine the pronouncements from the newest spokesperson for the church and noted theologian, Glenn Beck. In his most recent disparagement of President Obama Mr. Beck took direct aim at Mr. Obama’s religious beliefs. He analyzed them and provided his listeners with the benefit of his analysis. In his radio show on the Tuesday before his Washington D.C. rally he said the president’s belief system is grounded in what Mr. Beck calls “liberation theology.” He then defines it saying: “You see, it’s all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation. I don’t know what that is, other than it’s not Muslim, it’s not Christian. It’s a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it.”

It is surprising to have a member of a church that baptizes dead people by the hundreds of thousands by proxy without anyone’s consent, worrying about “collectivism” as distinguished from “individual salvation” and deciding what is and is not a “perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it.” It is, of course, possible that he has uncovered some golden tablets that have not yet been revealed to the other members of his church that will, when translated, show that a divine being ordained Mr. Beck to be not only a radio talker but a judge of the religious values of others. Until he shares those golden tablets with the rest of us, however, he will, like Koran burning Terry Jones, remain nothing more than another nut who is willing to attack whomever and whatever he pleases if he thinks it will improve his ratings.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

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